Thursday, 20 October 2016

Book Review - Recollections of a Victorian police officer by John Sadlier

Recollections of a Victorian police officer by John Sadlier (formerly Inspecting-Superintendent of Police)

Ringwood, Australia: Penguin, 1973 (first published 1913)  ISBN 0140700374

This is a fascinating book in so many ways - as an insight into early police-work in the colonies, as a tantalising glimpse of early Melbourne and the Goldfields, and of course an inside view of the Kelly Gang's escapades and deeds.

John Sadlier was born in Ireland, and like many from that country, came to Australia to improve his prospects. He soon joined the fledgling Victorian police force and was posted to Ballarat. Sadlier was one of the first police posted to that place, and, at 21 years of age, found the experience overwhelming. The conditions in 1852 were rudimentary, with the lock up consisting of chaining prisoners to a tree out in the open, which in winter in Ballarat would not have been pleasant...or in high summer for that matter!

Sadlier benefited from the fact that there were few men of intelligence and character in the force at that time, and found himself fairly rapidly promoted and moved to Melbourne - he has a bit to say on the Eureka disturbance, but he was not there at the time, and so his reports are second-hand: his views however are his own, and he puts the whole sorry business down to incompetent government, with the police caught between the rock of an iniquitous gold licence system and the hard place of being required to enforce it. Sadlier was not surprised at the outbreak at all.

Sadlier was moved to Melbourne to help clean up the activities of the police in that town, and quickly realised that it was mostly the sub-officers that are the trouble; the constables on the beat were basically good men, but allowed by the sub-officers to neglect their duty. Sadlier worked effectively to right the ship, before he again was sent out bush.

Sadlier spends a fair portion of his recollections on the Kelly Gang, and shows how ego and poor police work probably prolonged the Kelly's freedom. If his superiors had followed his advice after the Wombat Creek murders and Euroa Bank Robbery, they may very well have captured the gang as the crossed the river into NSW.

In fact a lot of what he writes about the pursuit of the Gang shows that interference from superiors and politicians did much to inhibit the proper course of police work in the hunt for the outlaws. Sadlier points out that, while the Queensland Black Trackers did not find the Kellys, the knowledge that they were searching led the Gang to retire to the deep bush and not show themselves, and in Sadlier's opinion prevented further outrages against the community.

The Kellys relied on sections of that same community for support, but that support was sometimes based on those people sharing in the loot, and when that dried up, Sadlier suggests, the gang was moved to try their hand at Glenrowan. Sadlier's description of the siege and final capture of Ned Kelly is very interesting to read, as are his comments on the commission following the siege. He has very little respect for the commissioners, accusing them of grandstanding, rather than finding out the facts.

Sadlier finishes the book with some pen-portraits of men he worked with across his career, and especially mentions Henry Dana and his Aboriginal Troopers, who Sadlier thought did a good job in policing both Blacks and Whites.

If you are interested in Colonial History, or in the exploits of the Kelly Gang, this book is worth hunting out.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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